The Death of the Focus Group? At Invoke Solutions, Apple Vet Makes Market Research User-Friendly, for the Surveyors and the Surveyed

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look you square in the eye and not be straight with you. They want to tell you something that goes along with the herd. We are social animals, and most of us follow. You can get interesting information from a focus group, but not enough to make a decision. With an individual in his home office, answering a well-designed, engaging online survey, I submit to you that you are going to get incredible honesty, because they are by themselves, not influenced by others in the room.

X: How did Invoke get into this business?

BC: Invoke was founded in 1999, and for about the first six months, it was a distance learning company. If you look at the requirements of distance learning, you need to be able to reach people globally; ask not just quantitative but qualitative questions; score answer rapidly and get immediate feedback and immediate results. When that product was shown here, a significant beverage company said, “This is interesting, but we’re not buying a distance learning tool right now. But we do lots of market research. Instead of getting people to join sessions as students, why couldn’t we just invite them as consumers?”

I credit the people who were at Invoke at the time for listening to their client, because as we all know, sometimes clients take you to where your products should be. I carry around an Apple Newton with me as a reminder. Apple didn’t do any market research on the Newton. They got a $1,000 brick that you can’t even fit in your pocket. It’s a brilliant company with brilliant leadership and creativity and innovation, but they probably should have talked to consumers about what they wanted. So some people from Apple left and did Palm, which was all about size, synchronization, and the price point. I take those lessons to heart when we develop new products like the Engage Analytics engine.

X: Okay, tell me about how that product emerged.

BC: For about six years, we hung our hat at Invoke on Invoke Pro, which was a live research tool. People would be invited three or four days ahead of time [for live surveys conducted at specific times]. You’d have half a dozen people in a room somewhere running the show, watching the real-time reporting, seeing instant PowerPoint and Excel reports. It was well ahead of its time. But we recognized something a few years back. You can get people from the general population to join a survey at 8:00 at night or 4:00 in the afternoon. But what happens if a pharmaceutical company wants to get together people aged 35 to 45 who suffer from a particular condition? That is very hard. So about a year ago we developed a product called Engage Open, which is simply an asynchronous version of the live service. People can come online at any time to answer surveys. But we retain the live experience; people who are logged on are welcomed by a moderator, they can still vote on other people’s answers, the questions are integrated with multimedia stimuli, and it’s a very active, conversational environment.

Engage Open was significant for us. In its first year, it became 28 percent of our business, because we could now get a low-incidence sample. If we wanted to recruit guys like you who might not be available at 7:00 pm but you could do it at 9:00 pm or 7:00 am. It expanded our business incredibly—it allowed us to do very specialized research in the B2B and biomedical worlds.

Now, if you look at research information, it’s oftentimes very complex to understand. There’s lots of filtering and segmentation. The reason chief marketing officers don’t like to read research is that it’s in the language of the researcher. But what would happen if everybody could understand research at every level in the company?

Look at the success of Apple in the music business. How did they become the biggest retailer of music in the world in just four years? Did they create the first handheld music player? Do they create the content? Did they come up with the idea of downloadable music? No, they … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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